Six Fellows of the British Academy make the case for the importance of the humanities and social sciences

20 Nov 2018

As part of the #howhumanities and #howsocialscience series, six fellows highlight the importance of these disciplines.

Professor Dame Mary Beard FBA shown sitting on some steps and smiling to the camera, wearing a red coat and red shoes.

Mary Beard DBE FBA, Professor of Classics at the University of Cambridge:

The important thing is that knowledge can’t be set in stone or pickled in aspic. Knowledge is only knowledge if it’s an active verb, if somebody is doing it. It’s not a set of things that you can consign to a library and say is there. Knowledge is something that is dynamic and changing.

There’s a very important strand of the humanities, which is always taking that conversation afresh, it is renewing it.

I think we have a fantastic opportunity to expand intelligent public debate, which is informed by all the kinds of different aspects of the areas of study that the Academy represents. You can’t think interestingly about migration unless you have some sense of what the history of migration and the history of ideas of citizenship have been. One of the things that the new media enable us to do, and that we have to grasp, is they help us take that kind of high-level informed debate outside the walls of the British Academy onto people’s laptops, onto people’s iPhones, into the world at large. It’s exciting. And we’re going to reinvigorate a sense of inquiry into the human past and human culture, throughout the British educational system and beyond.

Mary Beard: interview

Professor Sir Ian Diamond FBA photographed looking into the camera, wearing a suit and tie.

Sir Ian Diamond FBA, Principal and Vice-Chancellor at the University of Aberdeen:

Arts, humanities and social science graduates learn how to communicate and work with others, how to define a question and analyse the evidence to answer it, and how to work independently to solve problems with creativity. Such skills have never been more vital in a society where we need to collaborate across global boundaries, be engaged and active citizens who can identify ‘fake news’ and make evidence-based decisions and adapt to make the most of emerging technologies in an ethical way.

Employers need individuals who can interpret data, but also explain to others what it means.

Design, marketing and human relations are critical to industrial and commercial success and are dependent on understanding what it means to be human – something fundamental to the study of the arts, humanities and social sciences.And while our society is already multicultural; in a post-Brexit world, our international relations skills around trade and security are only set to become more complex. We need people with language skills, but also with intercultural understanding and global awareness, who can negotiate with tact and diplomacy.

Why arts, humanities and social science students are key to our future:  Sir Ian Diamond FBA

Professor Dame Anne Salmond FBA, smiling and looking up with bookshelves in the background.

Dame Anne Salmond FBA, Distinguished Professor of Māori Studies at the University of Auckland:

Our scientific insights, without the human dimension, will not take us to good places. When you look at any of the great challenges facing humanity at the moment, climate change for instance, loss of biodiversity, degradation of the ocean, the wars that still erupt around the planet, all of these things emerge from human ideas and actions. It’s not the case that you can understand or do anything very sensible about them without understanding human dynamics.

At the base of all these challenges are decisions, values, ways of relating with each other, but also with the planet. It’s been one of the great failings of our education system, but also our political discourse, that young people now think that they don’t need the humanities in order to think intelligently about the future for themselves and their own children and grandchildren. That is manifestly not right.

“We don’t rule or dominate the planet”: Dame Anne Salmond FBA

Professor Genevra Richardson FBA shown smiling widely with spectacles on.

Professor Genevra Richardson FBA, Professor of Law at King’s College London:

As data collection activities continue to increase and as analytical techniques used to process data become more sophisticated, individuals and communities are affected in new and unexpected ways. In a period of rapid change, data management and use needs to be informed by ethical principles which will require insights from the humanities and social sciences, alongside science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Disciplines like law, ethics and psychology will be invaluable in tackling these new challenges.

Data Management and Use: Governance in the 21st century

Professor Dominic Abrams FBA against a brick wall backdrop.

Professor Dominic Abrams FBA, Professor of Social Psychology at the University of Kent:

From across the humanities and social sciences, people are addressing different issues, whether about globalisation, demographic change, climate change, embracing technological change, the nature of people’s identities, or indeed contesting what identity is. All of these issues are bound up with how people connect with one another. In order to develop good strategies for sustaining a viable society, we have to understand how societies hold together.

Dominic Abrams: interview

Professor Conor Gearty FBA against a faded interior background, smiling into the camera.

Professor Conor Gearty FBA, Professor of Human Rights Law at the London School of Economics and Political Science:

For me, impact in the social sciences is not often going to be about being able to point to a section of an Act, in my case, or somebody who has not been arrested, and say ‘That is the result of that work there.’ We are not scientists, we are not sitting together in a laboratory producing a cure. But what we are doing is having impact in a cultural context, and by that I mean making ideas seem normal, from which change flows.

I will take an example from my own work. I went on and on about how we can use the criminal law instead of all these extreme counter-terrorism laws. Other people did this too, so you can’t say ‘Ah, that’s the Gearty Test’ – it’s not like Crick, Watson and Franklin and DNA. But you can say ‘Gearty along with other men and women made it kind of normal for the Attorney General or the Director of Public Prosecutions to say “we are using the criminal law”, and therefore made it part of common sense that we should not intern people, for example.’ Impact in the social sciences is about the salience of the issue. That is a tremendous thing to be able to help to achieve as an academic. And I think most of us – give or take a few – can aspire to do that, and it is not unreasonable to ask of us that we try.

Conor Gearty: interview


Sign up to our email newsletters